Black and White – The SamplesSeventeen – Sean Kelly and Tom Askin
On this rather emotionally-charged and spryly played release, The Samples
are playing at inspiration. On Black and White, the band attempts to
provide a lyrical atmosphere of hope, joy and child-like fun, while making
music that is just a little too loose and a little too varied to call pop.
They traverse the genres of soft rock, reggae-lite, pop-jam, with splashes
of Latin and African music. Yet, through all of this hopping around, they
still manage to elude anything resembling eclecticism or originality. Quite
On the opener, "Black and White," the band incorporates Afro-Cuban rhythmic
nuances into a rather simple pop melody, laced with chipper guitar lines and
some rather strained vocals, making the singer Sean Kelly sound rather
distraught. Considering that the lyrical content seems like the outcome of
a junior high school creative writing group exercise, I find the emotional
weight of Sean Kelly's strained vocals rather perplexing.
Here's a sample:
Purple and Blue
While the sun’s shining through
The cat’s on the table
Think he’ll always be able
To live in the colors
That were given by the mothers
And stolen by the one
Who returns holding none
OK then. Like the one above, many of the song's stanzas alternate by
opening with different color pairings and rhyme schemes. "Orange and red
the sun falls dead," and the album's opening hook: "Black and white always
fighting / Blue and green it'll soon be spring." Ignoring the lyrical
content, the music is pleasurably easy-going, but not notably inspiring. It
comes through as a mixture of hopeful, pop-laced Americana, and something in
between Paul Simon and Josh Groban. So, in other words, if you're not
already a huge Samples fan when you put the album in, the music will most
certainly come off as impishly grandiloquent or playfully light-hearted at
As for the rest of the album, well — let's just say it doesn't make any
huge leaps forward. On "Lollipop," Kelly uses the food analogy with women
in ways that haven't been popularized since the fifties and sixties: "I want
to lick you like a lollipop, I want to eat you like a peach, I want to drink
you like a waterfall, I want to kiss you on your beach. Na na na na na na
na." Underneath this playful pairing of women, food, and nature is a
bouncy, reggae-ish beat that adds to the songs playfulness rather
effectively. It is what it is.
At times, Kelly's honest passion for a happy world is more political. On
"For Everyone," he sings of his disdain for junk TV, liars and cheats, and
the passive and the weak. The song is a practice in naivetand little
else. He sings of how "This world was for everyone," and then continues on
towards more frustrations, finding no answers. Musically, it moves nowhere,
and goes to show that, even when the band strives to have a lasting effect
on the listener, it gets caught on its own hang-ups.
While lyrically good-intentioned and musically upbeat, Black and
White comes off as a music which attempts to unify, but doesn't quite
get there. With its odes to love, girls, drinking ("I Wanna Get Drunk"),
nature, and living in the moment, The Samples tread on well-worn ground,
proving that in the jam-world, lyrics do matter after all.
Meanwhile, on the intimate, acoustic release, Seventeen, Sean Kelly
plays his songs live for an audience of admirers. Like most live albums, it
is for the fans, not something intended to bring new fans on board. Like The
Samples' latest, it goes through a series of heartfelt pop songs about love,
life, and bewilderment, just in a more stripped down setting. Kelly's vocals
actually sound a little better on this live release than on Black and
White, where they sound strained and off-key much of the time. The
piano, guitars, and percussion give the album a very airy, drifting feel,
resulting in an album of stark loveliness and dreary melodies.
In a lot of ways, all the seventeen songs sound exactly the same, unified in
a painstakingly dreary fashion of beautified mediocrity. The vocals strain
and crack in heartfelt waves of anguish and hope, the guitars play simple
chords and uncomplicated melodic lines with splashes of percussion around
their edges, all creating a unified sound of heartfelt monotony.
Not much more can be said. Much. If their fans like this release, then
good for them. Whether it be for nostalgia's sake or for the album's
intimate, paired-down feel, there is something to like here. It is
an album of honesty, intimacy, and clarity. It feels real, not contrived.
That said, music – in and of itself – in order to be compelling, needs
something more than intimacy and reminiscence. It needs a sense of
innovation; that the players are struck by the very nature of the music, and
not just by the act of playing from the heart.